Rough 'n' Radiant

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Scientifically speaking, it's like having the aurora borealis bottled up in a Los Angeles gallery. "As close as you can get," Kim Koga says, referring to the works displayed in downtown Los Angeles' Museum of Neon Art, where she has served as director since 1998. Like the northern lights, the radiance of neon relies on a magnetized plasma of excited gases.

As an artist, Koga, 45, has been working with neon for more than a decade, but she says she encounters a steady stream of people "who still see neon as new, even though it's been around as signage since the '20s and been used by artists for decades."

" 'Neon' means 'new' in Greek," she says, "and that just seems to be part of its character."

Since 1981, more than 400 artists have shown luminous and kinetic art at the museum alongside its permanent collection of vintage electric signage and a small gallery for related photos and videos of examples of neon in the Los Angeles-Orange County area. MONA has also curated and installed exhibitions for other institutions in the United States, Japan and Taiwan.

In the front of the 6,000-square-foot gallery, Koga points out an introductory display of tubes pumped with the individual gases collectively dubbed "neon." Use of various gases, colored glass and phosphor coatings means that hundreds of colors besides neon's robust orange are available: There's the thin lavender glow of argon, mercury mixed with argon burning sky-blue, bright peachy helium (named for the sun), a ghostly gray thread of krypton (barely visible and translated as "the hidden one") and xenon (the seldom-seen "stranger") gleaming silver and more precious than gold. Sounding a bit like alchemy, this evocative combination of art, science and history reflects the museum's chimerical qualities.

"There are all these invisible lines drawn with neon," Koga says. "What's art, what's not, what's science."

Though neon seems to have a magnetic attraction for budding physicists and can readily illustrate lessons on electricity and chemistry, Koga is wary of MONA sliding the slippery slope toward science fair.

"We are an art museum first," she says. "Artistic expression is what we're here to promote." Though electrified gases can be trained to do many tricks--wriggle through tubes, bead up, crackle over marbles or simulate a miniature lightning storm--"Gee whiz!" is not quite the artistic statement the museum is after. Curiously enough, the arcing plasma found in your standard-issue Radio Shack lightning globes represents the commercial use of what she sees as one of MONA's most exciting frontiers. Known as "single electrode" style (versus the electrode-to-electrode linear mode of signage), this technology pushes away the boundaries of glass tubing, inviting creative glassblowers and glass artists into the fold of neon art.

The process of working molten glass, whether linear or free-form, is one Koga would like to see demonstrated at the museum.

"The process itself is fascinating, but even more so when it dawns on people that all these neon signs surrounding them have actually been made by hand," Koga says.

The museum, however, occupies the ground floor of an apartment complex, and fire codes prohibit this plan. For the time being, the museum holds classes off premises in artists' studios. Eventually, Koga would like to see MONA in a space conducive to workshops. But with the recent $125,000 extension of a five-year service operating grant from the Community Redevelopment Agency, the museum is staying at its Olympic Boulevard location, where it's been since 1996.

Previously, MONA occupied a significantly smaller space at Universal CityWalk (where it still maintains an exhibition of 22 historic signs). That arrangement lasted only three years, Koga says, because "people were up there for Universal Studios, not art." The museum's original location in the Arts District, near Little Tokyo, was the converted studio of neon artist Lili Lakich, who along with neon conservator Richard Jenkins founded the museum 20 years ago.

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Although MONA was created as an art museum, Koga says, it quickly got into the business of preserving commercial signs that were slated for removal. "MONA chose to preserve them as folk art," she says, "and we've built on those two ideas--looking ahead at where neon's going in the art world and looking back to its roots."

On permanent display in the back of the museum are several signs featuring nostalgic imagery, such as RCA Victor's canine mascot outlined in frosty glass and the animated cobbler's hammer from Zinke's Shoe Repair tapping away at a perpetually loose heel. Window galleries display other pieces, including the Brown Derby sign from Hollywood and Vine (currently under repair sans neon). "Even with the peeling paint and no lights, you'd be amazed how many people it draws in by memories of this," Koga says.

The museum's philosophy is geared toward maintaining signs as they appeared in their urban environment rather than fresh from the sign-maker's shop. Ideally, Koga says, the sign is left on the building but, even then, preservation efforts can run awry. "For instance, Studio City has an ordinance that prevents old signs from being removed from buildings, but there's no protection against an owner painting it over. I remember seeing the primer go up over Vince's Gym, which was once the famous gym of the stars. Now they sell sofas."

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The disregard for neon as something inherently seedy, Koga says, dates from shortly after World War II. Signs already falling into ruin during the Depression could no longer be repaired, as glass supplies from Europe were cut off by the fighting. Fear of air raids saw most signs in urban centers turned off; most neon artisans took up new trades. The final blow came in the form of mass-produced fluorescent-backed plastic signs, which proved more economical and whose novelty appealed to consumers.

As the museum prepares to celebrate its 20 anniversary, MONA will present a show that examines precisely this point: "Luminous Beginnings: Neon Art From the '50s, '60s and '70s," opening June 20.

"This was a time when neon was at its most scarce," Koga says, "and simultaneously a time that its use really flowered in the arts."

In the exhibition, artist Brian Coleman typifies the period's scavenging of commercial materials for artistic ends. Meanwhile Chryssa, a Greek immigrant who arrived in New York City in the '50s drawing inspiration directly from neon's last bastions in Times Square and Chinatown, demonstrates a direct connection to the sign-making tradition. Billy Apple, on the other hand, "was known for taking neon totally out of the sign industry and literally putting it on the floor," Koga says, referring to a 1970 Toronto installation in which Apple invited visitors to trample his neon to bits. Destroyed or prohibitively large historical works in the show, such as Italian sculptor Lucio Fontana's 100-meter-long "Galactic Concept," will be represented by photo documentation.

"Fontana was working with neon already in 1949," Koga says. "That's more than 50 years ago! MONA's already 20 years old in June, but for some reason, people still think there are only 10 artists out there working with neon."

Drawing comparisons with the evolution of various styles of painting, Koga says, "With neon, it's the same thing, even though it's a shorter history." "Luminous Beginnings," she hopes, will help the public realize that neon as an art medium is hardly new--despite its name.

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* Museum of Neon Art, 501 W. Olympic Blvd., L.A. Entrance at Hope Street. Free parking at Renaissance Tower, Grand Avenue and Olympic Boulevard. Hours: Wednesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Second Thursday of the month, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., with no admission charge after 5 p.m. Regular admission: $5, adults; $3.50, students (ages 22 to 13) and seniors over 65; free, children under 12. Some group discounts. (213) 489-9918, http://www.neonmona.org. "Luminous Beginnings" runs June 20 through Dec. 23, except on June 23, when the museum will be closed for a 20th anniversary fund-raiser.

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